Supportive and safe housing for LGBTQ youthQ&A with Mark Erwin: Nonprofit Journal Project

Mark Erwin is the executive director of the Ruth Ellis Center, which recently opened, in partnership with the City of Detroit, a residence for LGTBQ youth that also offers wraparound services such as employment coaching, behavioral health, art therapy, and health care.

Why was there a need for the Clairmount Center, with housing and services onsite for LGTBQ youth? What unique needs does that population have that are not well-served by other housing models?

This is the very first time that city of Detroit has had, as part of its housing continuum, housing for LGTBQ youth. In some cities up to 40 percent of homeless youth are LGTBQ identified. This was an opportunity to fill the gap here in Detroit. Significant behavioral health needs is a major focus. Having access to affirming housing is great, but young people experience discrimination in situations like healthcare so they have access to that here where they can advocate on their own behalf.

LGTBQ young men are at the greatest risk for new HIV infections, especially in the city. Our first health and wellness center began with conversations with young people in this population looking at barriers. For trans young people, it was important for them getting access to gender-affirming care where they’re not getting misgendered, or not being able to provide their preferred name, or being asked inappropriate questions or not being asked the right questions. Having a place like Clairmount Center, where they have access to a healthcare center co-located on the premises was really important. LGTBQ youth have a higher incidence of dropout primarily due to having experienced bullying, etc., so much so that they have just dropped out, so we offer employment coaching with hands-on experience with the food industry. We have a kitchen and café space.

How were LGTBQ youth involved in the planning process? Why was that important to your goals for the center?

The first LGTBQ affirming space needed to be informed by the people we were going to serve, and all of that was informed by members of the community itself. We held a lot of focus groups led by people in the community who could have become residents of Clairmount Center as well. We needed to know from them what kind of physical structure was needed to be able to affirm their identity: what kind of aesthetics, colors, what does safety look like, what kind of entrances.

We also spent a lot of time with neighborhood residents. It was important that the entire neighborhood sees this as a benefit to everyone in the neighborhood. One of the facilities is a pharmacy. There used to be a nearby CVS and that was a loss for the community when it closed. We identified a local pharmacy owner who will be housed on the first floor at Clairmount Center. We also know building community creates more safety as well. When there are relationships in a community people tend to look out for each other.
In what ways have the services offered by Ruth Ellis Center evolved as the trans population/trans people of color have become more visible? What are some of the more pressing needs of the community?

Housing is obviously number one and employment coaching. We know that we have anti-discrimination policies for the city, and whether or not business owners follow those is another matter. We use a model called Thriving Futures, and we also work with business owners from small business to large corporations, sharing with them the experiences of the young people we serve and helping them address accessibility and needs.

Working from within we are developing more important relationships and support teams of people and also for-profit partners. It really speaks to how the Ruth Ellis Center has focused our work over the last few years. Rather than sitting on the outside and shouting at systems, we work within these systems. We a contracting agency with Community Mental Health. We are working with Henry Ford Health System to develop an affirming care model that meets LGTBQ young people where they are. The Ruth Ellis Institute, a training and technical assistance organization, works with child welfare agencies, specifically on foster care and juvenile justice, on training and advocacy for LGTBQ young people so that they are better supported in those systems.

In the wake of events like the devastating mass shooting at Club Q, how did your community respond? How do events like this highlight the need for safe spaces like the Clairmount Center? 

They are devastating and that impacts all of us, especially as an organization that specifically serves the LGTBQ plus community. It really takes the wind out of us. When a space is intended to be safe and somebody makes them no longer safe, how do you manage that? We hosted our own Transgender Day of Remembrance on the Sunday directly following the shooting, and we did a candlelight vigil. We read every victim’s name aloud and created a healing place for people to share how they feel and what was resonating with them at this time.

One thing I expressed to the staff here at Ruth Ellis Center is that while there is not a magic fix – there’s nothing I can say or do to change what happened in Colorado –there are some things I can do to ensure that we are being safe as we possibly can. For example, at Ruth Ellis Center, the doors are locked at all times. People have to be buzzed in. If a person is not recognized, we talk to them through an intercom to understand why they are visiting our facility and what their purpose is. We don’t have metal detectors, we don’t have a security guard, but we do ask that young people who visit one of our centers check their belongings. No one is going to go through them, and they get them back as they are exiting, but it’s just another way to offer harm reduction. No one is ever to prop a door open, and no one is to leave at night by themselves. We always leave in pairs. It was about reminding them what is in place and also talking about additional measures such as panic buttons for our home-based behavioral health providers who are meeting with young people and families outside of Ruth Ellis Center, so making sure that they are safe and able to receive help. We had Dani Woods, who is the LGTBQ liaison with the Detroit Police Department, talk to the staff at Clairmount Center about police response and building safety. We’re including all our partners in this work so that we can be as prepared as possible in these situations.

In the recent midterms some groups were using disturbing rhetoric towards transgender people in ads and making trans kids, in particular, political pawns. How can the larger community push back against this kind of rhetoric and stand up for and with trans people? 

My first response will always be vote. That is one of the greatest powers we have against individuals who would further marginalize a population of young people who experience significant barriers. And, call them out on it; it’s important to recognize being an ally is more than just saying that you are. I prefer to use the term “accomplice,” which means you’re in it with them, you’re making phone calls and writing letters challenging individuals and making them explain themselves because they go directly on record.

This entry is part of our Nonprofit Journal Project, an initiative inviting nonprofit leaders across Metro Detroit to contribute their thoughts via journal entries on how COVID-19, a heightened awareness of racial injustice and inequality, issues of climate change, and more are affecting their work--and how they are responding. This series is made possible with the generous support of our partners, the Michigan Nonprofit Association and Co.act Detroit.
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